"See, this business is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers -- motherfuckers who thought they ass would age like wine." -- Marsellus Wallace, Pulp Fiction
Two boxers in full protective gear meet at center ring inside a cavernous warehouse transformed into a boxing gym. They tap each other's gloves in a show of respect. "Go!" bellows one of the trainers standing on the far right corner of the ring. The pugilists dance around in a circle, exchanging light jabs, looking for an opening. The sound of their boxing shoes on the red canvas echoes through the Spartan training area. The shorter of the two fighters -- a stout, hard-charging Jamaican with arms resembling industrial-size meat mallets -- quickly takes control of the practice bout by forcing his taller, but not so nimble, adversary into the corners with a series of clutches, holds, and hard punches.
"Nyuh! Nyuh!" Glen Johnson, 35, grunts as he stuns fellow light heavyweight Freddie Moore with a series of left and right jabs and flashy hooks. BAP! BAP! BAP! BAP! Johnson frustrates Moore by keeping his body low and away from his opponent's flailing mitts. The day before, Moore had lauded Johnson's ability to use his upper body strength and his massive arms to pressure his foes constantly. "You have to be in great shape to handle it," Moore said. Today, he could only handle it for one-and-a-half rounds. After walloping Moore with a combination of punches to his mid-section, Johnson connects a vicious right to the 37-year-old boxer's lower left cheek. "Hu, hu, hua!" Johnson snorts. WHAP! THUMP! Moore drops face- first onto the canvas like a banyan tree felled by a category four hurricane. He tries to get up, but can only summon the energy to reach an upright fetal position.
Ringside, Johnson's existential boxing manager, Henry Foster, implores his fighter to take it down a notch.
"Easy champ," he says. "Control that intensity." A groggy Moore crawls out of the ring. Meanwhile, Derrick Harmon, a sculpted bruiser wearing a blue bandanna, prepares for his go-round with Johnson. Before entering the ring, Harmon looks over to Foster and says: "I'm calling Antonio Tarver tonight to let him know he is not going to last six rounds with Glen!"
On December 18, Johnson will get his chance to prove Harmon right. That evening, Johnson and Tarver will square off in a twelve-round bout at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The fight, the main card of an HBO World Championship Boxing pay-per-view event, was a no-brainer considering Johnson and Tarver share a common denominator: In the past year, they both demolished golden boy Roy Jones Jr. to retain their respective light heavyweight world titles. Before his losses to Johnson and Tarver, Jones was the preeminent franchise. The Pensacola, Florida native successfully leveraged his manufactured reputation as the world's best pound-for-pound fighter into lucrative paydays on fight night and outside the ring via endorsement deals with Nike and other corporate sponsors.
Having vanquished Jones into possible retirement, Johnson has gained some measure of respect from mainstream sportswriters and commentators who didn't give him a whiff's chance against Jones. So naturally, Johnson is becoming a known commodity as a result of the enormous publicity generated by his victory over "Mr. Unstoppable." Jay Garfola, Johnson's marketing manager, says he is negotiating endorsement deals with fifteen major corporations including shoe giant Reebok and Flextec, manufacturer of an exercise glove for people who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. Johnson already has an agreement promoting the energy drink Liquid Ice with rapper-turned-actor Ice-T. "I was a happy camper when Johnson knocked Jones's block off," Garfola admits. "For me, it was a crapshoot because if Glen doesn't win, he ain't getting any endorsement deals."
But Johnson has yet to attain the kind of respect that earns him a champion's purse, the multimillion dollar payday that usually goes to guys with last names like Jones, de la Hoya, and Tyson. (For his bout against Jones, Johnson earned a purse close to one million dollars). It's a reality not lost on his manager.
"Glen can walk into any boxing gym right now and people will recognize him as the guy who knocked out Jones, on top of being a world champion," Foster says during an interview in the offices of Fight Club, the Overtown gym where Johnson trains. "But how do you translate that into dollars? Our job was to get another high-profile fight so we can convince everybody that they should pay to see Johnson fight as opposed to shelling out dough to see the guy Johnson is fighting."
Now a victory over Tarver, Foster reasons, would certainly propel Johnson into superstardom. And what happens if Johnson loses? "We don't contemplate losing," Foster boasts. "We only contemplate coming out victorious."
Johnson strolls into Fight Club on a recent Saturday afternoon, two weeks before his promoter finalized the deal to fight Tarver. In person, Johnson certainly looks like a guy who could whup anybody's gluteus maximus. His deep-set brown eyes, pouty lips, and the creases on his cheeks resemble the fierce, yet elegant, facial features of a bull mastiff, a canine breed whose size, speed, and power helped gamekeepers ward off poachers in the Eighteenth Century. Johnson's upper chest and abdominal muscles are tight and pronounced. His forearms, biceps, and deltoids would put the average South Beach buff boy to shame. He greets guests with a youthful smile that is betrayed by the salt-and-pepper stubble growing out of his granite chin.
Ten months ago, outside the ring, Johnson was donning a different kind of gear to make a living. Five days a week, he would put on his hard hat and construction boots and head out to Miramar, where he worked as a carpenter building tract homes. For most of his fifteen-year boxing career, Johnson has relied on construction jobs to supplement his income. His call to the sweet science came in 1989, when, overweight and self-conscious, Johnson enrolled for a free membership with the Miami Police Athletic League gym in his Coconut Grove neighborhood. One of the cops at the gym invited him to try out for the league's boxing program. He was a natural. "I ended up with a record of 35-5 and won two Golden Gloves," Johnson says. In 1992, he turned pro. But Johnson says boxing was just another means to pay his bills and take care of his three children. (The fighter is twice divorced and is engaged to be married again). "What else can I do without a college degree?" he asks rhetorically.
Johnson would wake up every weekday at 5:00 a.m. to get ready for work. "By 3:30 in the afternoon I would get off and get to the gym by 5:00 p.m.," Johnson says in a soft Jamaican accent. "At seven or eight in the evening I would go home, run a mile, take a shower, go to bed and then wake up the next day and repeat the cycle every day until Friday. On Saturdays I would train in the mornings, but took off on Sundays."
This past January, before winning the International Boxing Federation light heavyweight title, Johnson quit construction to focus exclusively on boxing. His victory over Jones has allowed Johnson to hang up his construction overalls for the time being. In a sign that he is getting used to prosperity, Johnson traded in his beat-up Toyota, the one with a garbage bag covering one of the rear passenger doors, for a burgundy Hummer H2.
"I didn't get here by luck," Johnson says, without any attempt to conceal his cockiness. "I got here because of my talent and my determination. Other guys would have quit a long time ago."
Johnson's cool bravado evokes visions of Butch Coolidge, the downtrodden yet wily prizefighter who outsmarted gangster boxing promoter Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction. In Quentin Tarantino's bloody opus, Coolidge endures a monologue of ridicule from Wallace before agreeing to take a dive in an upcoming fight. But in the end, Coolidge not only screws and runs over Wallace, he ends up saving the thug's life before riding off on Zed's chopper with his dopey French honey. Johnson has never tanked a fight only to double-cross the promoter in the end. Rather, his rise symbolizes hope for all boxers who will themselves to victory; fighting against the odds, overseas, in front of hostile crowds, for a title belt that no one has ever heard of and against the hometown stiff, who is being controlled and manipulated by the real-life Marsellus Wallaces of the world. "I got ripped off a lot fighting guys in Europe," Johnson grouses. "I've lost decisions because of judges who were down with the promoters backing the guy I banged up."
During his career, Johnson has posted 41 wins (28 by knockout), 9 losses and 2 draws. According to his manager Foster, Johnson was in the dumps when they began working together four years ago. "He had a history of being mismanaged and misdirected by other people that he felt he may never get to the top," Foster recalls. "He's carrying around this six-year-old gym bag with all its zippers broken. He had gloves taped together with duct tape. Yet he would still come in and work with the same intensity that he had for the Jones fight." Fortunately, Johnson wasn't traveling with a string quartet throughout his pauper period.
Foster, a gruff 54-year-old retired heating oil salesman from New York, began managing fighters in 1989 when he hooked up with Juan La Porte, a Puerto Rican former featherweight champion who was making a comeback as a junior welterweight. "My association with a former world champ gave me instant credibility with other boxers," Foster says. "Intellectually, I have an advantage over most of my boxers, but because I want to buy into their dreams as opposed to sucking the life out of them, Glen is able to trust me. He knows we'll always do things aboveboard."
From the moment he signed Johnson, Foster says he worked tirelessly to book fights that earned him the most money. Usually, Foster explains, that meant fighting a European boxer on his home turf. "The difference between doing a fight overseas as opposed to doing it in the U.S. is about five thousand dollars. So when you are fighting for money out of necessity, you have to take the European fight."
The downside of going to Europe, Foster expounds, is that Johnson sometimes did not get fair calls from biased judges. "In Europe, a knockout only guarantees you a draw," Foster laments sarcastically.
Johnson's willingness to travel overseas earned him the nickname "The Road Warrior" among European sportswriters, comments Andreas Lorenz, a sports editor for the German newspaper Berliner Kurier. Lorenz first saw Johnson fight against former German fighter Sven Ottke in 1999. "American boxers have a tendency to declare war against our boxers when they come over to Germany," Lorenz says. "But Glen came off very well-mannered."
Johnson's breakthrough occurred in November 2003 when he agreed to fight Clinton Woods, who was the IBF's number one light heavyweight contender, in Woods's hometown, Sheffield, England. Coincidentally, Tarver was both the WBC and IBF light heavyweight champ at the time. However, Tarver relinquished the IBF title as part of his agreement to fight Jones this past May for the WBC belt. "I started lobbying the IBF that they should make Glen's fight with Woods a title bout," Johnson says. "They bought into it. Glen ends up beating the piss out of the guy, but it ends in a draw."
One judge scored it in favor of Johnson, another scored in favor of Woods and the third judge called the fight a split decision. "There was dead silence when the announcement was made," says Lorenz, who was covering the fight. "After the fight, I was having dinner with Glen and his camp at one of the sponsors' restaurants. The owner came over to the table and told Glen: öChamps don't pay for anything in Sheffield, so everything is on me.'"
Foster complains that the judge who backed Woods had been corrupted by Woods's promoter, Englishman Dennis Hobson. "I have no evidence to that effect," Foster says. "But when everyone sees it one way, including the hometown judge, and then this other judge who calls it for the other guy was seen the night before having dinner and in the company of the promoter, well, two plus two equals four." (Hobson did not return phone messages left at his Sheffield office). Foster says he made his case to IBF officials to hold a rematch. This past February, Foster got his wish, and Johnson beat Woods by a unanimous decision paving the way for his fight against Jones. "It was mere coincidence that Jones needed to fight for a title belt in order to justify another fight between him and Tarver," Foster says. "So naturally, Roy's people contacted us."
But even though Johnson was the IBF champion, Foster says they had to accept a number of concessions. "The biggest disadvantage Glen has right now is that he has nine losses on his record," Foster says. "In boxing, the perception is that you're no good if you have lost more than five matches, so we took the short money. We realized we were only being approached because we had the good fortune of winning a belt. To Jones's people, we were peons at best; barely worth the consideration. Yet we ate all that shit because of the opportunity to showcase our guy against arguably the best opponent we could land at that moment. And when the money is ten, fifteen times bigger than any other purse you have ever seen, you bite the bullet."
On November 10, Johnson agreed to fight Tarver in what was supposed to be a bout to unify the WBC and IBF light heavyweight titles. Because of the politics of the sanctioning bodies, Johnson and Tarver will be squaring off for bragging rights and the promise of superstardom. The WBC and IBF would not grant either boxer permission to fight each other. Instead, the bodies wanted them to fight their respective number one contenders. "You know that television drives this business," Foster explained. "Although Tarver was going to defend his title on HBO pay-per-view, we did not have that luxury."
Besides, a fight between Tarver and Australian Paul Briggs or an IBF title bout between Johnson and Rico Hoye would pale in comparison to the interest in a showdown between the men who floored Jones. It's a big reason the December 18 match is going to be broadcast live by HBO World Championship Boxing. "We're going to take the fight that provides Glen and his family with financial security for years to come," Foster reasons.
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Foster won't say what Johnson will get paid for fighting Tarver. But he concedes that Tarver will receive top billing. "His persona and his numerous fights on television have made Tarver more of a well-known, celebrity-type boxer," Foster says. "Once again, we have to take the short money and concede some things in order to propel Johnson's popularity."
Johnson recently returned from a cruise ready to go. Five days a week, he shows up at Fight Club around 10:00 a.m. His trainer tapes up his hands and sends him into the ring to work on his footwork and his punching motion. An hour later, he begins his sparring sessions with Moore and Harmon. The sparring sessions are followed by an hourlong workout hitting the punching bags that dangle like slabs of meat from a row of iron tie-beams next to Fight Club's main boxing ring.
Today, Johnson is on a tear. After dispatching Moore, he doesn't waste time going to work on Harmon. For four rounds, the two pound each other mercilessly. Again, Johnson shows off his great center of gravity as he pushes Harmon into the ropes. Although Harmon gets a few shots in, Johnson consistently gets the better of his opponent. Spit and sweat fly out of the ring as if from a battered sprinkler system. During one sequence of punches, Harmon's head bounces back and forth as if he were a bobblehead doll. Oscar Cuellar, Johnson's trainer, a cueballed Cuban American whose family trained Olympic fighters, shouts words of encouragement at his boxer: "That's it champ! Don't let him see what's coming!"
Following the workout Foster tells a guest that before the sparring began, he had shown Johnson a recent article in which Tarver brags about his upcoming fight. "He's quoted saying he can't wait to knock Glen out," Foster says. "I think Glen was seeing Tarver in the ring today."